(DISCLAIMER: I love the Flyers. My earliest memory from my life is my father yelling at them on TV. I have been going to games since the early 1980s, and I will always go as long as I live in Philadelphia. I have always defended them, and I will continue to do so until the day I die, no matter where I live. With that said, I am not writing this to slam Ed Snider, Paul Holmgren, Bob Clarke, Peter Luukko, or ANYONE else involved in the organization. I am also not suggesting that I can do a better job than any of these men do, or have done. As a lifelong fan, I am grateful to root for and support the Flyers. The purpose of this post is to serve as a wake-up call to we, the fans, and to the organization as a whole, because we all want the same thing - a Stanley Cup. However, if we want to succeed, it's time to change our collective approach.)
Like many Flyers fans, I was not happy to see Sidney Crosby raise the Cup last night. However, the Penguins deserved to win because they battled hard and overcame a lot of adversity during the season to get there. Perhaps most importantly, they were correctly built for the job.
Our Flyers, in contrast, are not there yet. The team is generally headed in the right direction but is still missing a few pieces of the puzzle. Fortunately, we have a very solid fan base and an owner who cares. While I may disagree with some of what Ed Snider says and does, I will never question his desire to have a winning team here, nor will I question how much he cares for the city - he's done plenty of good here.
However, I'm more than a little tired of being told what we, the fans, want in a hockey team. We want a team that's going to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup in today's NHL. We do not want to be told that we're going to "love" guys like Daniel Carcillo just because they are tough, and we do not want to bring back former Flyers like Robert Esche for no discernible reason. I thought that these were the hallmarks of Bob Clarke's tenure as GM, but apparently not.
I'm not saying this to rag on Carcillo, Esche, or Clarke. I like Carcillo, and Esche was good when he was here during the "defense first" days of the Inter-Lockouts NHL (1995-2004). But Clarkie made these kinds of trades all of the time, and in my mind they kept us from being true contenders.
Don't get me wrong - I like the fact that the Flyers DO have a history and tradition. I love Philly's reputation as an intimidating city in which to play. I enjoy the "us against the world" mentality that goes along with being a Flyers fan, perhaps best summed up by Joe Watson before the victory against the Red Army in 1976: "Screw the league! We're going to do it for ourselves!" However, it seems to me that this tradition has been getting in the way of building the team for a while now.
It's nice to show loyalty towards players who were once part of the organization. But loyalty only gets you so far. If we bring back a former player who can seeimingly help us to get one step closer to the Cup (as we did with Mark Recchi in 1999) or who can at least keep us afloat for a while (as Vaclav Prospal did last year) then so be it. However, Robert Esche is not that kind of player. Esche was good for us when players were allowed to "clear the porch." The fact that he gave up so many rebounds was not important, because no one would be able to put them in. This was true up until 2005, when the rules changed. In recent years, we saw what happened whenever Martin Biron could not control his rebounds - we usually lost. Having Esche would be akin to having the "rebound-happy" edition of Marty B. No thank you.
As for continually bringing in guys who play "Flyers hockey," where has that gotten us? Let us look at what the Red Wings, Penguins, and Flyers have done in the playoffs over the past 20 seasons, from 1988-89 to the present. Each number represents a number of seasons where each scenario took place. I have bolded appearances in the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals as well as Cup Championships because, to me, that's where contenders go fairly consistently.
Did Not Qualify For Postseason Play: 1
Lost in Conference Quarterfinals: 7
Lost in Conference Semifinals: 4
Lost in Conference Finals: 2
Lost in Stanley Cup Finals: 2
Won Stanley Cup: 4
Did Not Qualify For Postseason Play: 5
Lost in Conference Quarterfinals: 4
Lost in Conference Semifinals: 5
Lost in Conference Finals: 2
Lost in Stanley Cup Finals: 1
Won Stanley Cup: 3
Did Not Qualify For Postseason Play: 6
Lost in Conference Quarterfinals: 6
Lost in Conference Semifinals: 2
Lost in Conference Finals: 5
Lost in Stanley Cup Finals: 1
Won Stanley Cup: 0
The Red Wings have made it past the first round 12 times in 20 years. They went to the Conference Finals or beyond 8 of those times, and won the Cup 4 times. The Penguins have made it past the first round 11 times in 20 years. They went to the Conference Finals or beyond 6 of those times, and won the Cup 3 times.
The Flyers have made it past the first round 8 times in 20 years. They went to the Conference Finals or beyond 6 of those times, but did not win any Cups.
We could look at this in a number of ways. Let's start with the good news for the Flyers. When they've won in the first round, they've gotten to the Conference Finals 75% of the time. The Red Wings come in second in this statistic at 66-2/3%, and the Penguins last at 54%. So the Flyers are efficient, but that's been true for most of their history - assuming they make the playoffs, they either lose in the first round or make a run to the Conference or Stanley Cup Finals. (The Flyers, in contrast to Pittsburgh and Detroit, have very few second-round exits.)
But the historical factor is the reason I've looked at these teams through a 20-year lens, which leads us to the obvious bad news. The Flyers organization speaks of playing "Flyers hockey," and they get players who play (or, at some point, HAVE played) "Flyers hockey," and they have no championships since the time "Flyers hockey" was at its peak in 1975. The Red Wings and Penguins, on the other hand, did not have glorious pasts to fall back upon. (The Red Wings did, but their last Cup before 1997 was in 1955, ten years before Steve Yzerman was born.) Therefore, they did not have to worry about drafting, signing, or trading for players who fit a certain mold, and you can see the results above. They're too painful to repeat.
So why is this? Is it the (recently extinguished) "Curse of Billy Penn?" Are the Flyers that behind the times? As I stated before the jump, I do feel that the team is moving in the right direction, talent-wise. It seems to me now that they "get it" and DO understand what is needed to win in today's NHL. But what concerns me is the "one step forward, two steps back" factor that seems to be coming into play again.
In 2006-07, the Flyers had the worst season of their history. During the year and in the offseason, Paul Holmgren vastly improved the team, and in 2007-08 the Flyers made it to the Conference Finals. That's one huge step forward. However, the Flyers stumbled out of the gate in 2008-09, and were maddeningly inconsistent. They either looked like Cup contenders or complete failures, and unsurprisingly lost in the first round of the playoffs. That's a step back, but we can chalk it up to growing pains.
The worst part about last season was that the team severely mismanaged the salary cap. Chemistry was disrupted in the losses of players like Metropolit, Vaananen, and Upshall, and the team had to sign college kids to play in a couple of games down the stretch. And while Holmgren seems to understand what's needed to improve the team, cap issues and free agency have forced him to refurbish the goaltending in a potentially bad way. If we sign Esche, we will have three goaltenders (including Backlund) who were not in the NHL last year. Unless Emery plays well, that is a huge step back.
Fellow Flyers fans, I turn to you for hope and intelligent discussion on this matter. We are all here because we love the Flyers, and we all dream of watching Richards and the boys hoist the Stanley Cup. But will it happen if the organization continues along this trajectory? What needs to change? What needs to stay the same?
Most importantly, what are your thoughts?